Psilocybin, a compound contained in magic mushrooms, has healing properties already exploited by ancient cultures. Now scientists, despite legal obstacles, are testing it to treat conditions such as depression or anxiety.
The compound contained in magic mushrooms and that causes hallucinogenic effects, psilocybin, has powerful properties that ancient cultures already exploited as a medicinal remedy, and that scientists have now begun to test to treat depression, migraines, and anxiety due to cancer and addiction to drugs such as alcohol or cocaine.
However, investigating with magic mushrooms, even in a clinical setting, today has significant legal obstacles and the few researchers who dare to investigate with it must go through a long and expensive pilgrimage.
A few months ago, in the United Kingdom, at Imperial College London, a clinical trial was just started to apply psilocybin to 12 patients with depression. “Although from the beginning they had the money to carry out the investigation, they have had to wait 3 years to obtain the pertinent authorizations and for the extract from the only laboratory in the world authorized to distribute it legally”, explains David Nutt, head of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College.
Psilocybin, when administered in a controlled manner, in a clinical setting and in the right doses, can “reconfigure” the brains of people with depression and eliminate the loop of negative thoughts that feed back into the illness, explains Nutt.
In an earlier study, Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris, a researcher at the same center, used MRI to get inside the brain on a psychedelic journey and see what changes. They observed that psilocybin suppresses activity in one area, the medial prefrontal cortex, usually overactive in people with depression.
It also “acts in the production of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that people with depression produce to a lesser extent—” Magí Farré, head of the Clinical Pharmacology Service at Germans Trias i Pujol Hospital, in the Spanish city of Badalona”.
“In low doses is when it is believed that it may have a therapeutic potential,” he points out. On the other hand, this natural hallucinogen has an evocative power that “would also allow us to recover memories to work on them”, adds Farré.
God in a pill
In the United States, a research group from John Hopkins University has been testing its effectiveness to stop smoking and to help terminally ill cancer patients cope with the inevitable journey to death in the best way possible. The participants in this last study managed to change the experience thanks to the mystical experience that the doctors induced with the ingestion of psilocybin. They managed to reduce the anguish and thus a sweeter ending. Some have even dubbed psilocybin “God in a pill.”
Along the same lines, another group from New York University is about to start a third phase of trials with a large number of terminally ill cancer patients. As if they were masters of ceremonies, the doctors guide the patient during the taking and the duration of its effect. Upon awakening, his perception has changed, his anguish has been transformed. Very few are those who suffer the worst of the side effects that can have: the anguish of a bad trip.
The therapeutic use of psilocybin is nothing new. In different cultures, traditional medicine has used them to heal. From the Aztec civilization, through the popular María Sabina in Mexico, to healers from the same Iberian Peninsula just 20 years ago, according to a study carried out by Juan Andrés Oria de Rueda, professor of mycology at the University of Valladolid, in which he has collected testimonies from elderly women who in the past worked as healers in Extremadura, Ávila and Zamora.
“This type of mushroom has been used especially for headaches, it is a very common autochthonous species in Spain, such as Psilocybe semilanceata, which they called Fungueiru or Tía Juana Mushroom, and which are very present in areas with grasslands, because they grow mainly thanks to cattle excrement, “Oria de Rueda said. “Its interest in treating cluster migraines, which are so severe that there have even been cases in which they have led to suicide, has been proven,” explains Oria.
A separate case is the fly agaric, which contains other hallucinogenic substances, such as muscimol and ibotenic acid. “It is the best known, but it has other effects,” Oria points out.
Against the ban
Psychedelic substances, both LSD and psilocybin, were used in clinical psychiatry research until after 1971, after the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, they were gradually banned around the world, James Rucker explains, a specialist at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.
Psilocybin can reshape the brains of people with depression and eliminate the negative thought loop. This British psychiatrist defends tooth and nail the need to give more facilities to research with these substances, to the point that he has made a flag publishing this year the prestigious scientific journal British Medical Journal, with an article in which he calls for the requalification of these substances for scientific use.
It’s not the only one. David Nutt, who has suffered a long bureaucratic journey to get to do his clinical trials to treat depression, has also published this same year another article of denunciation in PLOS Biology. It has been very difficult for him to obtain the necessary permits from the European Union and the British government, and he also denounces the control of the sale and purchase of psilocybin by the only laboratory that produces it.
In addition to the legal hurdles and the difficulty for ethical committees to approve it, in the case of psilocybin there is an economic brake, explains Rucker. “Due to the restrictions established by the United Nations, there is only one manufacturer in the world that produces psilocybin of sufficient quality to be used in these studies, at a prohibitive price of more than 130,000 euros per gram, which gives for 50 doses” says Rucker.
In the United Kingdom, in addition, the government also requires authorized research groups to pay a license for this activity that amounts to more than 6,000 euros. In addition, the permit takes at least a year to arrive.
According to the King’s College psychiatrist, the authorities of the time built false myths around psychotropics, such as that they incited suicide. According to a meta-analysis of scientific studies carried out before the prohibition of these substances and using controlled doses, there is no risk of suicide or self-harm. Unlike other drugs, it is not addictive.
Some see in the ban a clear attempt to dismantle the counterculture of the time. It was the chemist Albert Hoffman who was able to synthesize a hallucinogen, LSD, for the first time in a laboratory in 1947, and psilocybin 11 years later, in ’58. But it was an article published a year earlier in Life magazine that did famous magic mushrooms, in which Robert Wasson, an independent banker and ethnomycologist, explained the psychedelic experiences of a trip to the mountains.
From there, psilocybin left the clinical field and different movements began to experiment with psychedelic drugs, among them mushrooms. On the same day that Kennedy became president of the United States, Jack Kerouac himself tested laboratory psilocybin (which was then produced by Sandoz), as recounted in a letter addressed to Timothy Leary, a psychologist who at that time devoted himself to extensive research with these substances. The hippy movement also embraced the psychedelic arsenal.
In addition to psilocybin, scientists are interested in being able to investigate other hallucinogens. LSD also appears to be effective against anxiety and migraines, and ecstasy could be used to treat post-traumatic stress.